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Mark Norfolk: It took three years to create all-black Hamlet

The writer of Britain's first production of Hamlet with an all-black cast and creative team talks about 'serving Shakespeare's text as much as possible', and working with director Jeffery Kissoon


So far it's been a heck of a journey working with Jeffery [Kissoon] on this Hamlet. Our approach from the outset has been to serve William Shakespeare's text as much as possible in this cut version and also to pay particular attention to the iambic pentameter of the verse. Having spent upwards of three years working through the play, meeting three or four times a week - sometimes more - we believe we have arrived at a version that is concise and concentrates purely on the dynamics of the relationships between the characters within a murky world. We wanted to make sure the stories of the more complex characters such as Ophelia and Gertrude were given room to expand. Jeffery's over-arching theme is love, Hamlet's love for his father, and the diminishing love for his mother; Claudius' love for Gertrude and hers for him; Ophelia's love for Hamlet and vice-versa.

The idea of producing an all-black Hamlet came initially from Jeffery after he'd seen a young actor on the stage and deciding he'd like to direct him in Shakespeare's greatest tragedy. He wanted to comment on the fragility of present day youth, particularly young black men: what makes a good kid go bad? There was, at the time, some studies that suggested a lot of these kids were doing really well at school, then they reach their mid-teens and something happens that changes them. At the time I was a writer in residence at a prison with a high number of young black inmates and in my many conversations with them, a similar story unfolded.

​Furthermore, many of them that I spoke to had demonstrable mental health issues.​ I even recall one young man, about 18 years old, bumping into me in an agitated and distressed state. I discovered that he had seen a doctor and was refusing to take the tablets prescribed to him. I advised him to take them as they would slow down his 'over-thinking' - I could see he was being overwhelmed by the pressure of incarceration. A few days later when I saw him again, he was much calmer and in our conversation he had a similar domestic story as that of Hamlet: parental dysfunction, an unsettled future and repressed ambition.

'We believe we have arrived at a version that concentrates purely on the dynamics between the characters'

During rehearsal, working with a wonderful cast we were able to explore these themes and also use the opportunity to chuck into the mix the spirituality of an ancient Nubian martial art form called Ka Zimba. Lots of sweaty drumming, dancing and physical workouts along with mimicking animal characteristics made for inspiring mornings before getting down to the cerebral examination of the text and incorporating these elements into the characteristics of the individual characters in the play. For instance, the snake-like qualities of Claudius and the puma-esque qualities of Gertrude, or the playful monkey of Hamlet.

Our Hamlet is Raphael Sowale, he has a seering and brooding, yet sensitive quality that few actors have. Joy Elias Rilwan plays a beautiful Gertrude with a subtle flame burning within a fragile, classical frame; Ophelia, another complex character, is played by talented Abiona Omouna with an almost 'lost girl' quality, a topical subject and theme we were at pains to explore. The combination of these actors ​within the world we have created ​​is fascinating. The idea of re-imagining the history of a lost world is exciting and daunting. The questions we toiled with were about how an audience might respond to an all-black empire that incorporates all the continents, yet is set in England. The great thing is that Shakespeare has written a wonderfully universal and proven story which will always be the backbone of what anyone will see. The other great thing is that Jeffery Kissoon has a most extensive Shakespearean career and understands the Bard and his works from a scholarly and theatrical foundation that is priceless. ​

Hamlet runs at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds until 23 September and tours to Peterborough, Hexam, Margate, Windsor, Poole and London.